SexistSA: Where women’s safety in public spaces is unimaginable

Since the uproar from last week’s #TaxiRape story – that a group of men in a minibus taxi has reportedly been picking women up, raping and robbing them – multiple women have come forward to tell their stories of harassment in taxis. It’s clear that although women are reliant on the taxi for effective and affordable transport, they do not feel safe taking taxis in and around Johannesburg. It is unacceptable that women cannot take a taxi, catch the Gautrain, walk in the street, shop at a mall without feeling threatened. The women reporters at The Daily Vox share our experiences of sexual harassment in public spaces.

Nolwandle Zondi
Now I know that you shouldn’t take a lift from a stranger but I was really desperate. It was high noon in December and I was walking to The Grove Mall to meet up with a friend. The mall was a 20-minute walk away. A white Polo drove past me in the opposite direction. It slowed down and did a U-turn at the traffic circle a few metres behind me. The car pulled over on the other side of the road. “Get in,” the white guy behind the steering wheel told me. It’s just five minutes away. What’s the worst that could happen?

I climbed in and clutched my handbag to my chest, I was fucking nervous. He told me to relax and asked me my name. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him my real name. I didn’t ask for his because I honestly didn’t give a shit. “So, do you have a boyfriend?” Now I sometimes lie and say yes I do because that throws some of them [men] off the scent. But I’m getting tired of lying – why do I always have to lie for a man to respect by boundaries? “So do you have any toy you like playing with?” I pretended not to know what he’s talking about. “You know, those toys you play with when you’re alone in your bedroom.” I was not going to let this man get the better of me. “Don’t you think that’s a fucked up thing to ask someone that you just met?” He shrugged his shoulders and was silent. He dropped his right hand off the steering wheel and rubbed his upper thigh. I could see his engorged penis. “Well, I like being direct,” he said. I told him that he should try a different approach because I would much rather have jumped out of that moving car than have spent another second with him. The rest of the ride was in awkward silence. He kept sliding his eyes up and down my body, probably undressing me and imaging me playing with some ‘toys’. When we approached the last traffic circle I leapt out the car before it came to a complete stop. “Wait,” he called, “Can I get your number?”

Shaazia Ebrahim
As a woman living in Johannesburg, I am well aware of the dangers associated with walking in the city. But I refuse to be imprisoned by my body, afraid in my own damn city. So I still walk. I follow a strategy when I’m walking. I try to walk with someone or in a group, I tie my hair, try not to draw attention to myself and not be obvious about the possessions I have with me. I walk as quickly as possible, making minimal eye contact with people around me. I ignore the leering and the catcalls. I also keep pepper spray. This strategy usually works for me, but I can think of a couple of times when it didn’t.

Once, when I was walking from the Origins Centre at Wits to UJ’s Bunting Road campus, two men in a small white car stopped at the robot, opened the car windows and started jeering at me from across the road saying, “Hey baby, where are you going? Do you want a lift?” They looked old enough to be my dad. I ignored them, I wasn’t fazed because I was on the other side of the road. But then they indicated, made a U-turn and started following me at a slower pace. They kept calling out at me. There were only a few pedestrians on the road and most of them were men. I panicked. I started running with the car following alongside me. Luckily, a minibus taxi stopped on the side of the road and a group of women got off. I joined the group of women and once they realised that the men were following me, they chased them away. I still don’t know if they were just amusing themselves or if they had more nefarious intentions. Either way, I felt sick for weeks.

Mishka Wazar
I travel on the Gautrain quite a lot when I’m on [campus] holiday to get to work. I don’t get harassed that often, around once a week. Generally, I get spoken to inappropriately or people touch me. It’s frustrating because when I’m on the Gautrain I like to listen to music and stare out the window. I don’t like sitting, I always stand by the door. That’s where I get harassed often, because fewer people stand near the door so it’s usually just me and the other person. It’s usually older white men, who get off at Sandton and Rosebank, who try stuff with me. They make inappropriate comments and look at me for a reaction, or they’ll start a conversation and ask me questions about myself. Sometimes men will push past me or into me and start talking to me. One time this older white guy had been staring at me from Centurion to Sandton. When I looked up eventually he told me I was pretty and started asking my age and making comments about me, laughing and staring the whole time. It makes me uncomfortable and self-conscious. I get so tired of it, those microaggressions just become too much and you’re constantly on edge.

Aaisha Dadi Patel
I spend a lot of time at Rosebank Mall – it’s close to where I live and work. I’ve recently had a few unpleasant experiences of harassment there, which angers me – why should I feel uncomfortable in a place that is so familiar to me? A few months back, I went to watch a movie with a friend. When it ended, we went down to the Gautrain exit to wait to be picked up, when suddenly these men started calling out to us, and following us. We quickly ran to the closest parking lot and waited there. In another incident, I was walking down an escalator as I was leaving the mall, when a drunk man (he had alcohol in his hands, and reeked of it) came up to me and started asking me what my name was. This was after I said “No”, and he didn’t leave. I quickly ran to the pay station, where there were more people – his eyes stayed on me the entire time, until I got into my car and drove off. Most recently, I was shopping with my sister when I felt my back being stroked. I thought it was my sister, and turned around to admonish her – and realised it had been a man who just walked past me.

Rumana Akoob
The idea of safety in a public space is a luxury that is never afforded to women. Sadly, my experiences of being groped by men is not exclusive to my own lived experiences. There are hundreds of times I have had to divert from my routine to prevent a possible attack. The most painful violence I endured that has never left me was being mugged by a group of men who wanted my cellphone which I didn’t let go of. Why does it matter where I was? So I can be blamed for being there? Why does it matter that I was alone? I was physically harmed, hurt in the most intimate of places on my body because I wouldn’t let go of what was mine. You could blame me for not giving in but who knows what was going on in my head at the time? Every time I go to a toilet alone at a restaurant or at a library, I watch my back. Every time a man whistles at me, I die a little inside. Why is being safe in public spaces a dream I cannot even grasp?

Featured image by Rumana Akoob